Rural Phone Calls and “Network Neuropathy”
Rural Phone Calls and “Network Neuropathy”
Rural Phone Calls and “Network Neuropathy”

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    made a passing reference to the rural call completion problem in a post about 2 months ago. I’ve now written a much longer
    piece explaining the problem of rural call completion, and the nature of the
    problem, for the Daily Yonder. You can find the article, and the
    very nice illustrations they added, over here.

    Public Knowledge colleagues and I have emphasized both network reliability and service to all Americans as part of our “Five Fundamentals Framework” to guide the transition of the
    telephone network from traditional technology to an internet-based one.

    The rural call completion problem demonstrates precisely why we
    need a framework to guide us, rather than jumping right away into the
    “deregulation v. regulation” fight so many people want to have instead of focusing on the
    real issues.

    is also an example of a phenomenon I call “network neuropathy,” how problems in networks may first manifest themselves
    in failures of service around the extremities.

    An Unexpected Bug In The Transition

    one anticipated the rural call completion problem. It didn’t happen because
    anyone misused their market power or tried to do anything bad. It happened
    because IP-based voice service gives companies a way to save money by selecting
    from a choice of possible routes. For the vast majority of IP-based services,
    this kind of flexibility works fine. But for services that are not tolerant of
    latency, like voice, problems come up unexpectedly.

    because the problem — at least initially — impacts a relatively small number
    of calls as measured against the overall number of calls completed every day,
    it takes a long time for the problem to get noticed, properly diagnosed, and
    hopefully corrected. During that time, the problem keeps getting worse.

    We Need To Get The Framework Right

    is only the first of many hiccups that will come up as we convert something as
    enormous and complicated as the phone system to an all-IP system. Yes, things
    have worked very reliably until now, because everyone operated in an
    environment where everyone understood the rules (both explicit from agencies
    and the unwritten rules of conduct that always emerge in a long-standing stable
    system), knew what was expected of them, what they could get away with, and
    what not to try. As the old way of doing things falls away, everyone is groping
    to find the new way of doing things. That process of discovery – for all of its
    positives – also means that you get new and unexpected problems that the market
    does not work out, like rural call completion.

    that happens, we need the FCC (and the states) to step in and diagnose the
    problem and determine what (if anything) needs to be done. Because, as the
    rural call completion problem illustrates, “the market” isn’t automatically going
    to work everything out. We need someone who can step in when the market doesn’t
    work, and we need a framework based on values to guide the analysis and

    could approach rural call completion in two ways. We could say: “This impacts a
    relatively small number of calls in a system that handles millions of phone
    calls every hour. It impacts a tiny fraction of the population, and a minute
    number of actual calls. How can that possibly justify imposing expensive and
    intrusive reporting requirements on the market as a whole – especially when no
    one has deliberately done anything wrong?”

    we could say: “It is a foundational principle that we keep the telephone system
    functioning reliably for all Americans. That means that when we have a systemic
    problem that is making the phone system behave unreliably for a portion of the
    population, we treat that as a Big Deal and we take it seriously. We look into
    it, and if necessary we do something about it to make sure that calls get reliably

    tells you which way to respond is whether you actually have a framework and a
    set of principles and what they say. If you don’t have any framework at all,
    you have no way to judge which answer is the right answer. If the focus is just
    “regulate or deregulate” without any guidelines for what we care about, what
    needs we’re trying to address, or what problems we want to avoid, then you end
    up with no one with the ability or authority to diagnose the problem or
    prescribe the right solution.

    For the Future: Network Neuropathy

    medical science, there is a condition called “neuropathy.” Problems in the
    central nervous system manifest themselves initially as a loss of sensation in
    the extremities. People with Parkinson’s or Hansen’s or diabetes lose sensation
    in their hands and feet, or constantly get the “pins and needles” sensation of
    the hands and feet. Peripheral neuropathy can lead people to injure their
    extremities without realizing it, and can also be the first warning sign of a
    deeper problem that, if left unattended, will work its way into the central
    nervous system not just the periphery.

    call completion is an example of what I like to call “network neuropathy.” It
    is a loss of functionality at the edges, an unraveling at the extremities of
    the network. It is also a warning sign, that no matter what the benefits of the
    IP transition, it can also produce unanticipated problems.

    glad the FCC is acting on the rural call completion problem. We need to have
    the tools to deal with these problems as they emerge. We need to have an FCC
    (and state regulators) with a set of guiding principles that tells how to
    evaluate these issues, and has the authority to address them as they emerge. If
    we focus on our fundamental framework, on getting the core values and goals,
    then we will be able to do that.